Monday, February 7, 2011

Woman Eating, or, Too Close for Comfort

Duane Hanson. Woman Eating. 1971.

Regardless of how many Duane Hanson works I see, or text labels I read, I still feel uncomfortable getting too close. As I lean over to read the headline of this woman’s newspaper, my head knows her body is made of synthetics. My body, however, still gets slightly nervous; what if she turns to wipe the mayonnaise off of her mouth and sees me? How will I explain myself? For me, Hanson transforms Gaze into presence. I want to move as close to the Woman Eating as possible, however approaching her head on, as I would a painting or drawing, simply makes me anxious.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Response to South

Following Yesterday's post, this question was asked of me:

T or F: Monumental work is nearly always impressive by merit of its sheer size. How would your impression of this work change if it were small(er)? Is the answer that artists should go back to painting machine sized canvases? Discuss amongst yourselves.

After reading this question, I spent the morning discussing it amongst, well, myself. This is what I decided:

I completely agree with you that, in a general sense, monumental work cannot help but be impressive. With this work, in particular, I believe the large scale was not simply a marketing tool, but a necessity. Perhaps I should have mentioned this in the original post, but in the year before this painting was created, the artist actually spent time in Polar Regions (although the specific area currently escapes me). That being said, Rockman's understanding of the scenery is unique. To me, this seems to be a more realistic approach to a commonly discussed but rarely traveled area of the world (*note, I am basing the realistic qualities on size alone). Of course my impression of this work would change were it smaller. Rather than being forced to step back and let the work guide me, I would likely lean in. I believe my attention to detail would remain constant, however the overall glory of the piece would diminish.
In regards to whether or not artists should go back to machine sized works as a whole, my answer is a firm absolutely not. I find that if more than 3 machine sized works are too proximal in a gallery, their size negates each other. South was so striking because it was the only work of this scale in the exhibit. I don't believe there were any works at all comparable in size. As the only machine sized work, it is alluring. As one of many, it would seem cliché.
Rather than machine sized painting, however, I believe the real issue here has yet to be approached. Landscape Painting.* How many times have you thought to yourself, “Thomas Cole, where have you gone?” while roaming through a museum? The answer? Probably not as many times as I have.** I love landscape painting. Yes, it is formulaic, but all painting is. No, I’m not saying that I think all Contemporary artists should flock once more to the Hudson River or the Great American West, but I congratulate Rockman for boldly approaching a traditional style, which so many artists seem to shy away from.

*The Smithsonian American Art Museum is home to a great deal of landscape paintings, including works by Cole, Bierstadt, Church, etc.

**Unless your name is James Swensen.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

South, or, Yellow Gray

Alexis Rockman. South. 2008. Oil and Wax on Gessoed paper. 75x358.75 in.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum currently has an exhibition titled “A Fable for Tomorrow.” The exhibition features works of the artist Alexis Rockman. While the exhibit in its entirety is not unimpressive, I personally find the subject matter a bit too fantastical for my taste, though I esteem the bold color combinations and unique handling of paint. Among strange landscapes, bizarre insects, and phallicised farm animals, Rockman’s South stole the show.
Upon first viewing this massive polyptych, my thoughts immediately returned to 10th grade art class. My wonderful teach (who I hope is reading this now) was attempting to transform rowdy kids into avid color theorists. Complimentary colors were lesson #1. Following this, a general discussion of taboo combinations. Today’s lesson: Yellow-Gray. We were strictly forbidden from combing yellow and gray (until we were old enough to understand the consequences of our actions, that is). Fortunately, New York based Alexis Rockman decided to skip that day. While the skyline of the above image appears primarily, well, gray, the original painting reveals strong hints of dingy yellow readily disbursed throughout the clouds. There is no better color combination to demonstrate and exaggerate the vast bleakness contained within this polar landscape.
Though the mystical, carnivorous seal-like creature (located in the far right bottom corner) could practically fit in my hand, the monumentality of the work charms me. Each of the 7 panels is roughly 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide, and when mounted several feet off the ground, the top of this work resides well above even my own head. The panorama requires me to take several steps back, and then, several more, until finally I must check behind me to ensure I am not about to stumble in to anything or one. The work is sullen, encompassing, and entrancing.